The Thief Who Talked

a Chinese oral folk story translated and adapted by Ping Cui and Robert Colvin , illustrated by Stephen Axelsen

LONG, LONG AGO in China there lived an old couple. Their house was small and they were very poor. To keep warm at night they had to wear all their clothes in bed, and their pillows were old boots.

One night as they lay together, the wife was already asleep and her husband was just about to fall asleep when he heard something.

The door bolt was being poked gently; slowly the door began to open. A thief slipped in quietly. The old man saw him and smiled to himself. He knew the unwanted visitor would leave disappointed—there was nothing worth stealing in this house.

The old man heard the thief begin to grope and feel his way ... a table here … he picked up a teapot and laid it down. Why? It was without a handle! …a chair there, the stove … the bed …

The old woman woke with a start. ‘Husband! Husband! There’s someone in here! Someone bumped the bed! It might be a robber!’

‘Go back to sleep, old woman,’ muttered her husband. ‘There’s no-one here.’

Soon her snores filled the air, and the burglar began once more to move about. His hand discovered a big open jar and reached into it. It was full of rice. This is worth having, the thief thought. I won’t leave here empty-handed after all!

The old man was wide awake now. That rice was all the food he and his wife had in the house. If they were robbed of it, they would surely starve! But wait, the old man thought, the jar is heavy. It would take two strong men to carry it. The thief couldn’t take it by himself. He lay still and waited to see what would happen next.

The thief knelt on the floor with his arms around the great jar. He realised it was too heavy to carry away by himself. He was a cunning fellow though, and soon, an idea came to him. He stood up and began to take off his shirt.

The old man made out what was happening.  The thief was going to use his shirt to wrap up the rice and take it away! He had spread his shirt out on the floor and turned to tilt the jar slowly.

The old man was cunning too. He had a long-stemmed tobacco pipe close at hand and he used it to flick the shirt off the floor and onto the bed.

The thief began pouring rice onto the floor where he thought his shirt was. When the jar was empty, he knelt down to start wrapping the rice. He scratched and scrabbled but couldn’t find his shirt. It had gone. But how? Where? He was so astounded that he stood up and couldn’t help saying aloud, ‘Hmmm?’

His ‘Hmmm’ woke the old woman again. ‘Husband! Get up! Get up! There’s a thief in our house! I heard him! Do something!’ she bawled.

‘Oh do be quiet, wife,’ answered the old man calmly. ‘What are you making all this fuss about? There’s no thief here, no thief at all. Get some sleep.’

‘No thief?’ the old couple heard someone say. ‘If there is no thief here, where is my shirt?’